Students and policy makers in one classroom - learning together

Transdisciplinarity involves external stakeholders as key collaborators in projects with a social impact. It is a process and can take many different forms, and is also increasingly part of education. We at Utrecht University want to learn from each other by sharing stories of people who are actively involved in transdisciplinary initiatives and how they have made their journey. In this field story we highlight the 'Mixed Classroom', an educational innovation developed by the Urban Futures Studio in which students from different disciplines and policy makers are part of one classroom where they learn from and with each other.

group of students in TLL tilt their heads while listeing to presentation
Mixed classroom of 2019-2020

Peter Pelzer, assistant professor in Spatial Planning and Urban Futures and one of the initiators of the Mixed Classroom, explains how he and his colleague came up with the idea: "Policy makers need knowledge. Knowledge renews, changes and improves, that's what we are constantly working on at the university. In addition, students learn about concepts such as policy and governance, but that remains quite abstract. Wouldn't it therefore be interesting if policymakers and students sat together in a classroom where they learned from each other?"

Outside the university walls

After a successful first time, the course has now taken place six times. "During all editions we have learned many things and things have fallen into place. However, in order to keep it interesting for both students and policy makers, we don’t repeat what we have been doing for years. It is continuous tinkering," Pelzer explains. Christine Verduijn, one of the students of the 2021 edition, explains what caught her attention in the course: "In the course description, the organisers talked about the clash of transitions. Where do the transitions that are so badly needed now actually get stuck? I find that an interesting theme. It was also a great opportunity to look outside the walls of the university."

Last edition's key concept was 'temporal confusion'. Pelzer explains: "Researchers and policymakers are often busy with long-term issues, such as climate change and biodiversity. Policymakers who are working on these issues, for example on energy transition or sea level rise, find that the short term often takes precedence. In the Mixed Classroom, students were given the role of temporal therapists. After assigning a policy maker, they diagnosed the problem the policy maker was experiencing with this temporality. Then they carried out an intervention in which they were going to help those policy makers to have more long-term thinking in their work. The students read up, and developed a perspective, and those committed to what we called patients, the policy makers."

Thinking ahead

Onno van Sandick, knowledge coordinator for sustainability and living environment at Rijkswaterstaat and one of the ‘patients’ in the last mixed classroom, explains what he takes away from this course: "The issues of climate change requires to think much more ahead, instead of the reactive approach, so that we can prevent crises and transform society. It was very valuable for me to hear from other policymakers, the students and the teachers how they approach this challenge. It  gave me a better idea of how decision-making works elsewhere and how we can influence the future. We were given the task of shaping a time travel together with these colleagues. That was an assignment that enriched us all. We had to imagine our ancestors living in 1850, 1950 and the future generations in 2050 and 2150. It was fun and interesting to hear from each other what that looked like; everyone had different images and ideas. In addition, taking part in this course has made me once more realise that we can contribute to a desirable futures by changing the fundaments of the system, rather than trying to cure the defects in the present system."

Verduijn is very enthusiastic about the course: "I found it extremely interesting! We were pulled out of normal educational practice, the whole course was very different from what we were used to. The set-up was much more focused on learning together, a joint project with policy makers in which we were really taken seriously as students," she explains. "To give the therapy a more practical approach, each student group was given a theme within which we had to design the therapy. We were given the theme of rhythm. We could design the therapy ourselves. We started with an intake, followed a week later  in which we gave an assignment to the policy maker every day. Every day something physical came out, a poem, a small text or a drawing, in which we challenged them to look to the future. For example, they had to write about what they thought their field would look like in 100 years' time. As students, we really got the feeling that we had something to contribute. Moreover, you see what policy does in practice and how it takes shape. One policy maker came up with a tantalising idea to simply eliminate all the boxes that are called ministries. The beauty of this setting is that you can play with wild ideas like these with policymakers, without it having drastic consequences for practice."


"Organising this course is a bit more challenging than usual," says Pelzer, "education is organised fairly rigidly, and you can't just step out of that. At the same time, policy also has certain moments when things get busy. Sometimes, for example, a policy maker suddenly has to go to the minister or parliament. Furthermore, you need a subject that awakens the interest and urgency of both students and policy makers. The theme must not only be question driven, because then there is not much point as a university, but you also do not want a subject that does not resonate with the target group. So we are always looking for ways of thematically structuring it, so that it remains interesting for students and policymakers. Verduijn emphasises the added value: "I think it is also very useful for other studies to have such a course and to be able to look beyond the classroom for a while, to get the feeling as a student that we have something to contribute. The organizers had thought it through so well, I think that is a requirement for setting up a course like this."

Hogeronderwijspremie 2021

The Mixed Classroom team of Utrecht University has won the Hogeronderwijspremie in 2021 of 800.000 euros. The jury was impressed by the rich exchange of knowledge between students, policy staff, but also scientists, artists and designers. "Learning takes place where decisions are made. The various perspectives and contexts, such as those of the business community or artists, are well taken into account. Students are taught to look for solutions in a learning way. Solid bridges between science and practice have been built."